Shout It Out!

Matthew 15:1-20
© Stacey Steck

A lot of ink has been spilled in the press this week about the blood that was spilled in Charlottesville last Saturday. Both blood and ink are notoriously difficult stains to remove, so it’s going to take a powerful stain fighter to clean up the mess. Simple elbow grease will not be enough. No, we need something much more powerful, and I have just the solution. From the archives of my nostalgia, I bring you another installment of Stacey’s childhood television memories: Shout It Out!

Like the olive oil that flowed down upon Aaron’s robe, Jesus was perceived as a stain on the purity of the religious traditions of the elders of his time, a stain which must be shouted out, or shouted down. Some of his disciples had apparently decided their hunger could not wait until they found a proper place to wash up before dinner and they were spotted by the watchful eyes of the Pharisees and some of the Scribes who had come from Jerusalem, the heavy hitters whose interpretation of Scripture was almost as powerful as the law itself. Notice I said almost. Jesus remembers the almost factor and not so gently reminds them, with the words of Isaiah, that they are the ones staining the law and rendering it meaningless.

The scribes and Pharisees were taking issue with the disciples’ violation of one of the safeguards of the law. As always, the defenders of the faith had the best of intentions. They were about the business of helping people to avoid unintentionally breaking the law of Moses, in this case from defiling themselves by eating with hands that may have touched some impure object or person. Since it was not always intention, but also incident, that made one impure, to wash one’s hands would ensure that if you had become impure and did not know it, you would be OK to eat and not defile yourself and sin before God. You may remember the woman who had been bleeding for fourteen years who touched just the fringe of Jesus’ cloak and feared for her life because she had made him unclean in her desperation. On that occasion, Jesus was made “unclean,” at least in the eyes of the authorities, not because of what he had done, but by what that unclean woman had done to him. This cleanliness and purity thing was a very big deal, indeed from God’s own mouth to Moses’ ear.

The Scribes and Pharisees solution was to pull out their interpretive stain fighter and try to “Shout it out” of Jesus and the disciples and restore their system to purity and cleanliness and order. They felt justified in accusing this ragtag bunch of violating the law and used shame dressed up as an innocent question: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” They have asked, of course, the wrong question. A better question to ask, if indeed they really were interested in protecting the disciples and God from impurity, would have been a more open-ended question like, “Are you clean before eating?” Rather, they assume that since the disciples have not abided by the proper traditions, that they are impure, and proceed right to the defense of their traditions, rather than the law itself. A better question still would have been, “Have you helped any little old ladies across the street today?” for in the absence of a life lived for justice and mercy, we are all unclean and impure before God.

What wonderful words from the book of James, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The Law the Jews loved so well was not only intended to keep the people pure before God, but right with each other, and indeed, the two cannot be separated. If you are not right with one another, you are not pure before God, and if you are not right before God, you cannot be right with one another. The impulse to reduce the Word of God to either of these two sides of the same coin is to fundamentally miss the point of the Law. As Jesus so succinctly put it, “Love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself.” One without the other not only simply will not do, but is impossible. In the same vein we find James’ exhortation to be “doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves,” and Jesus’ lament from Isaiah that “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” These scribes and Pharisees are not being criticized for their scruples, for their scruples were well-intentioned. They were being criticized for their scruples getting in the way of their Scripture. They were being criticized for being more concerned with the disciples’ hands than the disciples’ hearts.

You see, if this group of people charged with the leadership of the people of God cannot see its way clear to give its attention to what is really important, that is, the stuff inside a person which defiles, it has abdicated its responsibility. What Jesus is asking, in essence, is for them to be as concerned with the character of the person as with their cleanliness, as concerned with the “sins within” as the “sins without,” as concerned with the quality of justice and mercy extended to widows and orphans as the quantity of water used to wash away biological microbes and spiritual contagions. If they were ordinary people questioning the piety of the disciples, the scribes and Pharisees might not have been chastised so severely, but these were the leaders who were trusted by the people in their care, and Jesus cannot let the matter go unaddressed. It is not that the scribes and Pharisees have gone “too far.” Rather, they have not gone “far enough.”

The same can be said for those whose outrage over the racist gathering in Charlottesville stops at looking at other people. Condemning neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, and even cops who use excessive force, is easy for most people. But our gospel passage this morning reveals that condemning ourselves is what it’s all about, the much more difficult task of looking at what comes out of our mouths, so to speak, or what doesn’t. If we want to talk about race in America, where is the bi-partisan outrage over gerrymandering which both parties employ to manipulate voting districts for their own political purposes but which never really benefits communities of color? Where is our collective outrage about the well-documented differences in criminal sentencing which condemns minorities more frequently and for longer terms than whites for the same offenses? These are the stains we really could shout out, the things we really could do something about, that would make a real difference in the lives of a lot of people. I could go on listing the sins of our society in which each of us are complicit, but I’d rather not be a Pharisee. You see, I haven’t really done anything about those issues lately either. In fact, the one time when I really could have made an impact, I failed miserably. Many years ago in Pittsburgh, I was called for jury duty, and like most people, I didn’t relish the possibility of serving on a long or even sequestered trial. So as I was sitting there waiting to have my number called, I was running through all the possible reasons I could give to get disqualified from serving all week or even longer. But not even my most creatively prepared excuse could compare to what I ultimately, and shamefully used when the moment came.

You see, when I was finally called to a pool of potential jurors, it was for a capital murder case of a young black man. And since it was a murder trial, I knew it had a good chance of being a long trial, so I was reviewing my list of excuses while other people were being selected or dismissed by the prosecution and the defense. But as I was sitting there, I realized that the potential jury pool was 100% white, and that the chances of this black guy getting a fair trial were pretty slim, or at least slimmer than they demographically should have been. And so, to make a long story short, when I was interviewed, when none of my other excuses were good enough to get dismissed, I played the race card in such a way that the prosecution had me thrown out faster than a Duke fan at a Wolfpack game when they realized that there was someone there who could see some potential injustice looming ahead. The heart of the matter, of course, or maybe the matter of the heart, is that I used my awareness of our nation’s institutional racism not to help that young man get a fairer trial, but so that I wouldn’t have to be inconvenienced for a week. I was precisely the kind of fair-minded person he needed on his jury, that the system needed on that jury, but in the end, I had only my own interests at heart. “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

Listen. Neo-nazis and other fundamentalists are just the tip of the iceberg of racism, and it wasn’t the tip of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. It was what lay beneath the surface, in terms of both ice and hubris, that brought down the supposedly unsinkable ship. And like it or not, feel it or not, know it or not, we are part of that great mass of ice below the surface of Charlottesville, floating along unseen while the tip catches all the heat. But Jesus looks beneath the surface and challenges both the Pharisees and the disciples to focus on what really matters. “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander,” and yes, we can add, institutional racism. “These are what defile a person.” Neo-Nazis and overt racists are the least of our problems. As the comic strip character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

A lot of the mess to be cleaned up this week has come from focusing on the wrong enemy, or at least that part of the common enemy that is most visible and attention-seeking. But if all we do is shout them down or shame them down, we miss the point in the same way the Pharisees did. I’d like to see the same energy used to analyze the actions and motivations of others, used to analyze our own implicit biases, and our own hidden participation in systems of racism, and how we can change them. Yes, those overt forms of violence and racism must be challenged, but complaining merely about those who would protest in public, without owning what also comes out of our hearts and mouths is the same thing Jesus chastises the Pharisees about. We cannot afford to be that self-righteous.

As much as we would like to believe that either the election of a black president or the elimination of white supremacist ideology would end racism, the iceberg floats on, sinking ships of all sizes. Will it help us to have more elected minorities and fewer Klan protests? Of course it will. But will it not help us more to change those things we can actually do something about, to be, in the words of James, “doers of the word, and not just hearers who deceive themselves?” We deceive ourselves if we think the solution to our problems lies anywhere but within us, and in God’s power to change each of us. It is not what goes into us which defiles, but what comes out. Playing the victim, blaming those things outside your control, lamenting about our sad state of affairs, all that is placing the emphasis on washing your hands of contagions you might have come in contact with. But taking responsibility for how you conduct your life, and how you pursue justice, and what kind of Christian witness you offer to your children and grandchildren is to address the issue of purity, cleanliness, and true religion where it truly lies. That’s how the iceberg slowly melts.

Let me send you home with a little way for you to practice what I preach! The next time you wash your hands before eating, I invite you to begin the practice of asking what you can wash from your heart as well as from your hands. As you stand in front of that mirror, take a good look at yourself and ask how you might faithfully live as someone who is a doer of the word and not merely a hearer, as someone whose outer life reflects their inner life, as someone whose actions are “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, that is, to care for orphans and widows in their distress” a great metaphor for caring for one another and living justly, and “to keep oneself unstained by the world;” to shout out of yourself those things that stain and defile. Know that is God’s will and Christ’s passion that you do these things, and in them we will find life abundant, and racism will take care of itself. Amen.